Forming the Heart
If Christianity were a philosophical system, an empirical science, or an ideology, it would suffice to read books and web pages, to listen to lectures and podcasts. But Christianity is a whole way of life—ultimately it is a direct encounter with God Himself. A correct understanding is necessary to ground one and to cultivate the mind—but this has as its goal the Christian meeting, and knowing, God. When we speak of the ‘heart’, we mean by that word what the ancient Hebrews and Greeks meant: the interior reality of the human person, physical and spiritual. Although it has popularly come to mean ‘emotions’ or ‘passions’, in Christian vocabulary the heart is the true core and identity of the human person, and it is the transformation of the heart into the sanctuary of God that is the whole goal of the Christian life.
We have written in an earlier section about the nature and significance of Christian worship. To understand God and our condition before Him, to begin to know Him (not in a discursive way, but in the way we know our own closest loved-ones) and to offer Him the thanks and glory that is appropriate to Him begins and ends in worship. The heart—the inner being of the person is profoundly formed within this context as we stand united as a Church with Christ as our head.
The Holy Scriptures speak constantly about the importance of personal prayer. Similar to corporate worship, personal prayer places the self in relation to God in an intimate way. The heart is warmed and oriented to God most intensely in the warmth of God’s presence. Short prayers throughout the day, with attention, are beneficial for establishing a rhythm of life in Jesus Christ, and a period of time for standing quiet and still in the presence of God is even more transformative of our inner life.
Jesus Christ instructed His apprentices on how they should fast—it was not so much about the nature of the food they ate—although that was a part of it—rather, it was important that such fasting be between the God and the believer. Any outward sign of fasting, according to Jesus’ teaching, nullified the benefit: it became an exterior display and not an interior transformation. When we fast, we abstain from particular kinds of food, or from all food and drink. Because the human person is a unity of the physical and the spiritual, even the formation of our interior being is effected by our exterior practices. Fasting reminds us that food is a gift from God; that eating is given to sustain life—life is not given to sustain eating; that we are to receive every material blessing in this life gratefully, as a gift from God.
The same spirit of gratitude that we cultivate by fasting overflows into the giving of alms, or material aid, to those in need. This giving allows us to participate in God’s own mercy. Jesus Christ made acts of mercy the criterion of judgment when He comes again in glory (Matthew 25:31-46), because those who give love and aid have Jesus Christ—who is Love Himself—within them. It is best for our almsgiving to be as direct, and personal as possible. Writing checks is a beginning, but serving others with our own two hands—as Jesus Christ did, who washed the feet of His own apprentices (John 13:1-17)—brings us into union with those we serve. This is the realization that all we receive is a gift from God, and that which we pass on to others—whether time, talent, or treasure—is given to us in trust, to be used for the benefit of those who go without.
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Polycarp the Holy Martyr & Bishop of Smyrna; Proterios, Archbishop of Alexandria; Gorgonia the Righteous, sister of Gregory the Theologian; Damian the New Martyr of Mount Athos; Boswell, Abbot of Melrose Abbey